Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Audio Books and Innocence of Childhood

It's amazing what mp3s you can find on the internet if you just look hard enough. For example, over the last 7 days or so, I've been listening to Bill Bryson's book The Lost Continent in the car to and from work. In brief, its about Bill's (I'll refer to him by his first name. He doesn't mind) trek across American after spending a number of years in Great Britian as a way of re familiarizing himself with our great land. One of his goals was to see if that perfect American town portrayed in movies actually existed. If you've read any of his books (A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Notes from a Small Island just to name a few) this literary work will not disappoint.

Prior to a week ago, the words "audio book" to me seemed like a contradiction. A book, after all, unless you're a 6 year old, should be read not heard. Listening to a book by all accounts seemed to me like cheating on a test. Why not just read the summary on the back cover?

That was my stance until I started listening to this book. Boy was I blown away. It wasn't at all as bad as I envisioned. My initial guilt for even postulating such an endeavor was quickly snuffed out as I became drawn into the storyline. True, its not the same as digesting the pages one after another while sitting in your favorite chair sipping an adult beverage but it doesn't suppress ones ability to conjure up mental images of what is transpiring in a specific passage even while thundering down the interstate.

The first seven or eight chapters which I finished last Thursday chronicles Bill's early leg of the journey which took him through Illinois, Kentucky and parts of deep south. The cotton fields in Mississippi he described reminded me of what I saw when I set out on my own cross country trip back in 1998; a story for another time. As he made his way through Illinois and western Kentucky, his description of the small towns were as vivid as anything I had ever heard.

...Then something hit home...right in between my eyes.

As Bryson searched for the "perfect" American little town, it occurred to me that as I observed my young son playing without a care in the world, I longed for the days when all I did was run around the neighborhood which was "perfect" in my eyes. I'd wake up on a Saturday morning, watched new episodes of Looney Toons (or were they reruns from the 50s and 60s?), ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes and went outside to play ball or ride my bike all over the neighborhood with no thought to what time it was or how much time elapsed. Truth be told, I got pretty good at figuring out the time by looking at the sun, within say a half hour or so. Eventually, I'd return home, eat dinner, help my mom or dad with a few tasks around the house or in the yard followed by more ball playing or more bike riding through the homemade dirt trails on the edge of the neighborhood. The next day, the process would start all over again.

Never did I have to worry about the hardcore reality that made up the world outside my neighborhood. After all, my neighborhood was my "perfect" little town as far as my 8 year old eyes could see. I didn't have to pay bills, didn't have to worry about employment, didn't have to worry about federal or state income tax or health care. My life consisted of three things: playing ball, riding my bike and playing video games. That's it. Nothing more. The rest fell into place. Life couldn't get any easier.

Alas, you can't go back in time to relive childhood days gone by. You can't even pretend that it's 1983 and ride your rusted out BMX up and down the street. I guess you could but the neighbors wouldn't look at you the same after such a stunt. However, during a trip home last summer, I decided to take a trip back to the old trails hoping that I could score one more ride only to find that the weeds had taken over leaving no trace of the trails that once stood. Evidently nature proved to have the last word.

I know it's a stretch but listening to Bill's voyage through these towns made me realize how much I see myself in my son. The childhood innocence he radiates as he plays in the family room or out in the garage is intoxicating. It triggers my memories from childhood of the smell of food my mom was cooking on the stove as I watched reruns of Scooby Doo or the sweet smell of my dad's pipe emanating from the basement as he worked on some project. Heck, I even remember the brand of tobacco--Captain Black--because it was my job to fetch it when he was ready to smoke his pipe.

In and of themselves, these stimuli mean nothing. But to me, they represented security and comfort. I had a comfy house, good food and loving parents that regardless of what trials and tribulations existed in their adult reality, they exuded a sense of calmness that, in retrospect, helped deflect the stress of everyday life away from me. My life in my small little "perfect" world continued unabated with, still, not a care in the world. It is this environment that encapsulates security and comfort that sustains the innocence and "perfection" of childhood that I wish to provide for my son and future child; something they will look back on in their adulthood with soothing fondness.

Call it living vicariously through ones child but playing with my son helps me forget that I am a working, responsible adult who needs to pay his taxes on time. The stressors of everyday life suddenly vanish and my existence becomes locked in a state of pure naivete. For these fleeting moments, I am back at home in 1983 smelling the faint tinge of cigar smoke from my dad or the overriding aroma of spaghetti sauce at the hands of my mom or the sound of the powdery dirt as I ride my bike on the old dirt trails back in the old neighborhood. If only these moments could last as long as childhood itself.